A sound judgment, but it sidesteps the one central issue

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The Independent Online

If I am ever up in court on a serious charge, I want to book Lord Hutton now as the trial judge. The impeccable standards of proof on which he insists do have a predisposition to acquittal. And there are no balancing reservations. His judgment is almost one-dimensional. It is clarity.

On the central question Lord Hutton is right. I never doubted that Tony Blair believed in the case for war. On the contrary, my concern always was that he brought to the issue a sincerity that did not brook disbelief. The Prime Minister did not ever imagine that the 45-minute claim might be wrong. He passionately believed in it because he needed the evidence to support his faith.

The tragedy is that the Hutton inquiry produced evidence that Mr Gilligan was on to a good story. Thanks to Hutton we know that there were members of the intelligence community who were unhappy at the way the September dossier was "over-egged". If only Mr Gilligan had been content to report that as a straight story, he would have made a valuable contribution to the case against the war.

Instead he introduced an unfounded accusation of deliberate deceit. It is not just the BBC governors, but the wider press community, who should now reflect on the dangers of distorting the truth by sensationalising a story.

On some of the ancillary questions Lord Hutton is generous to a fault. I cannot myself rise to the charity of his observation that the Joint Intelligence Committee may have been "subconsciously" influenced by its knowledge of what No 10 wanted from them. On any fair reading of the evidence, John Scarlett was only too consciously aware that the Prime Minster expected him to come up with a justification for war.

I am left uneasy by the number of e-mails that reveal so many occasions when No 10 requested a change in the drafts and the Joint Intelligence Committee submitted. They agreed even when the amendments did violence to a rounded version of the intelligence, such as the deletion of the assessment that Saddam would only use his chemical weapons if attacked.

The obvious conclusion is that we need more of an arm's length relationship between Downing Street and the intelligence services in order to give them protection from political lobbying. The case of Iraq demonstrates the dangers of a situation in which the agencies desperately scrabble to come up with the intelligence that the policymakers want to fit their adopted prejudice.

The Hutton report may have established that the Government did not set out to deceive public and Parliament in the intelligence it offered on the case for war. However, Lord Hutton himself made it clear yesterday that he offered no judgment on whether that intelligence was reliable, as that lay beyond the terms of his remit. As a result his report does not resolve the central problem for the Government over Iraq, which is the gulf between the claims it made before the war about the threat from Iraq and its inability to find any evidence of such a threat since.

The plea which Tony Blair repeated yesterday, that we should all wait on the report of the Iraq Survey Group, becomes more threadbare with every passing week. The outgoing US weapons inspector David Kay volunteered at the weekend that "we have found probably 85 per cent of what we are going to find". However long the Iraq Survey Group retains a vestigial presence, there appears nobody left within it who now expects to find a weapon ready for use in 45 minutes, or any other period of time.

For six months Mr Gilligan has given the Government the gift of displacement behaviour. It has been able to occupy the moral high ground and has sidelined the accusation that it got it wrong. The No 10 hope has been that the longer it can delay admitting that it was wrong, the greater the possibility that we will all forget about Iraq.

Yet it is precisely the refusal of No 10 to recognise reality that keeps the controversy alive. So long as Tony Blair keeps insisting the intelligence was right and the threat was real, the rest of Britain will keep asking him for evidence. On the day he was cleared of dishonourable conduct Mr Blair was in a position of strength to concede that the intelligence, in which he had believed in good faith, had proved to be wrong. His failure to do so yesterday is a missed opportunity.